Climate change policy in a democracy


Recent opinion polls in the UK and elsewhere show that governments have failed to convince the public about the received wisdom on climate change: it's very bad, it's all our fault and we have to rejig the global economy to fight it. In a survey conducted for the Times, just 41% of people agreed that 'it is now an established scientific fact that climate change is largely man-made'. And only 28% believed that it is 'far and away the most serious problem we face as a country and internationally'.

The Science Museum has been running a campaign called PROVE IT!, in which they asked people to sign up to the statement 'I've seen the evidence. And I want the government to prove they're serious about climate change by negotiating a strong, effective, fair deal at Copenhagen'. Visitors to the museum gallery were overwhelmingly in favour: 3,408 counted themselves in, while 626 disagreed. But on the website, after allowing for initial multiple voting (largely from the 'yes' camp), 2,650 were counted in and 7,612 counted out. Hardly a resounding message to send to the negotiating team.

It seems that the public just refuses to get the correct message, and it's likely that 'climategate' and the recent scary TV ads have reinforced scepticism. The problem is that, short of voting UKIP, the electorate has no way of influencing policy at the next election: both Labour and the Conservatives are officially fully signed up to the climate change agenda.

But this may not always been the case. It's fascinating to see that, in Australia, the opposition Liberal party replaced their leader, Malcolm Turnbull, by Tony Abbott, on the basis that he would not support the goverment's Energy Trading Scheme bill (which has now been duly rejected for the second time by the Senate). If, as expected, Kevin Rudd now calls a snap election, it will be equally fascinating to see what the Australian electorate thinks. It must surely only be a matter of time before a major political party in an EU Member State backs away from a hardline policy on emissions: despite appearances, most parties contain significant numbers of doubters. Then we can see whether there is truly a democratic mandate for radical carbon dioxide emissions reduction policies.

Martin Livermore is the director of The Scientific Alliance.